More women than ever are using donor eggs as they keep delaying childbearing until long past the age when their own eggs are healthy. This has helped fuel an increase in first-time mothers over 40, whose numbers have quadrupled in the past 30 years.
But as the practice becomes more widespread, a recent study finds, women are no longer trying to hide the fact that their babies come from donor eggs by working hard to find donors who are physically or genetically similar to them. Instead, the researchers say, recipients tend to look for other qualities, such as intelligence and athletic ability, that they hope to pass on to their children.
The study — archly titled "Beauty, Brains, or Health" — was conducted by physicians at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the fertility clinic Reproductive Medical Associates of New York. It found that women today are not as focused anymore on a donor's hair and eye color. The editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women's Health, which published the study, sees this as an indication that using egg donors has become more socially acceptable. Recipients are no longer working hard to try to make a baby who looks like their own biological child, so they can keep the baby's origins something of a family secret.
The shift in what recipients are looking for in egg donors indicates that they've become "more sophisticated" in their choices, according to Dr. Susan Kornstein, the editor. But is it really more sophisticated to go shopping for an egg donor as though shopping for shoes, hoping that traits like intelligence or athletic ability will actually be present in the egg cell's DNA?
The researchers, led by Dr. Homero Flores of Reproductive Medical Associates, looked at the choices made by 438 potential egg recipients, aged 24 to 53, over the past five years.
Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of women who said they wanted an egg donor from a "similar gene pool" declined from 40 percent to 25 percent. At the same time, looking for a baby with a "similar appearance" was relatively rare and held roughly steady, with 15 percent of women in 2008 saying it was important to them, and 22 percent saying so in 2012.
The most important thing that recipients cared about was the same thing mothers have cared about since time immemorial — the baby's health. Nearly three-quarters of the women in the Mt. Sinai study said the health of the egg donor was a crucial factor in making their decision.
But other factors were also important, and became more so during the five years of the study.
From 2008 to 2012, the percent of women who cared about a donor's "intelligence" increased from 18 percent to 55 percent, and the percent who cared about "athletic ability" increased from 1 percent to 17 percent.
Flores and his co-authors saw this as a good thing, a sign that recipients became more focused on "practical traits that would serve their offspring's overall quality of life." This assumes, of course, that "practical traits" can be passed along this easily — that being good at math or at throwing a ball not only enhances one's quality of life but also is inherited.
The preference for egg donors who are not only healthy, but also smart and skilled, has also been a trend among women looking for sperm donors, with sperm banks becoming almost as personality-oriented as online dating sites. Indeed, one dating site — called Beautiful People — created its own service a few years ago to match gamete donors and would-be recipients.
Hidden in the Mt. Sinai study is the fact that 78 percent of the potential egg recipients were over the age of 40. And at least one of them was 53 years old.
This means that there are a lot of women out there in their 40s and even 50s (50s!) who think they still have the option to become pregnant. An argument could be made — a topic for another day — that by the time you pass 45 or so, you should, perhaps, be thinking about other ways to satisfy your maternal cravings. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.